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Ikea: Refuge in a flat box

A prototype of a shelter designed to accommodate five people.

AFP/Getty Images

A prototype of a shelter designed to accommodate five people.

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Swedish furniture giant Ikea is expanding into a whole new market — war zones. Joining with the UN High Commission for Refugees, the Ikea Foundation is testing out shelters that are twice as large as current refugee tents, last perhaps 10 times longer, and take only about four hours to assemble. Add in rooftop solar panels, and the design could radically improve living conditions for many of the world’s 45 million displaced people.

Known for low-cost furniture sold in flat boxes, Ikea could prove helpful in addressing a global problem: how to protect the 23,000 people who flee from their homes each day because of conflict and natural disasters. Meant only to provide temporary relief, the UN refugee camps that receive them today offer little comfort, security, or dignity. Ikea’s shelter could change that. Made from lightweight plastic panels attached to a metal frame, the 188-square-foot unit promises ventilation in hot climates, insulation from cold, and electricity for camps formerly dark after nightfall. The prototype’s price tag is $10,000 but is expected to fall to below $1,000.

The UN refugee agency is wise to draw on the company’s expertise. Ikea designers’ attention is now on other camp infrastructure improvements, including solar-powered street lamps. Only some assembly required.

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